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FROZEN FOODS

TV DINNER

In 1954 C. A. Swanson & Sons introduced TV dinners to consumers in the United States. Gerald Thomas, an ex- ecutive at Swanson, conceived the idea after the com- pany unexpectedly found itself with 520,000 pounds of unsold Thanksgiving Day turkeys (information available at any website on popular culture of the 1950s). The turkeys were being stored in refrigerated railroad cars moving coast to coast across the country because there was not enough storage space in the company’s ware- houses. Thomas also conceived of the idea of using alu- minum trays with three separate compartments. Based on his experiences in World War II, when soldiers ate from a tray, commonly known as “mess gear,” he wanted to solve the problem of different foods running together in their serving tray. He observed the lightweight metal trays then being utilized by the airline food industry to heat meals and adopted them for use with the TV dinner. The TV dinner concept was not met with immedi- ate approval or enthusiasm at Swanson, though, where two more traditional-thinking brothers owned and oper- ated the company. It was not until the older brother, who opposed the idea, went on vacation that Thomas’s idea became a reality. The first dinner contained turkey, corn bread stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas. Its packaging was designed to look like a TV. Because most consumers did not own freezers in 1954, the din- ners were usually consumed on the day they were pur- chased.

The market for TV dinners, or “frozen food dinners or entrées” (as they have come to be described almost exclusively by the frozen food industry since the 1960s), has continued to expand over the past five decades, re- flecting the values and concerns of a larger American so- ciety. The initial production order by Swanson was for five thousand dinners, at a cost of 98 cents to consumers. Within a year, Swanson sold more than ten million turkey TV dinners. To ensure successful sales of the TV dinner, Swanson created an ad campaign featuring Sue Swan- son, who “re-assured housewives they needn’t feel guilty

about not cooking homemade meals for their families.” During the 1960s the sale of frozen food entrées rose dramatically after it became well publicized that the first American astronauts to land on the moon ate prepared meals while in space. In the 1950s and 1960s these en- trées featured mostly comfort foods, similar to the home- made dinners that “Mom” would make, such as meatloaf or fried chicken combined with mashed potatoes. The microwave oven was then invented in the 1960s, and it became a standard feature in most Amer- ican homes by the 1980s. This development further in- creased the convenience and attractiveness of TV dinners to consumers. The 1980s witnessed a rise in the pro- duction of ethnic, low-calorie, and budget entrées, whereas the 1990s saw an increase in the production of gourmet entréees, “kid cuisine,” and “hearty portions.” The new millennium has so far indicated increasing growth in the production of frozen food entrées that are either healthy or “wholesome.”

The frozen dinner is currently the largest category within the frozen food market; it currently accounts for over $5 billion worth of supermarket sales annually. One of the ten most popular dinners served in American homes is now a TV dinner, and nearly half of all Amer- icans purchase frozen entrées. Those individuals most likely to consume TV dinners are “blue-collar families, older couples, and retired singles,” whereas those least likely to consume TV dinners are either more wealthy families living in the suburbs or poorer people living in the country (see American Demographics for further in- formation). In addition, frozen dinners are being deliv- ered increasingly across the country to individuals who are homebound because of poor health or functional im- pairment. Survey findings reported by the Frozen Food Institute in 2002 reveal that certain frozen foods are among the top three items that Americans would not want to live without.

Julie Locher

product, including its nutrient retention. The USDA and land grant universities responded to this concern with re- search studies to assess the impact of freezing on nutri- ents in fruits, vegetables, and meat, which are summarized by Karmas and Harris. The results of this work showed the nutritional advantages of frozen foods and gave rec- ommendations for freezing methods aimed at retaining maximum quality and nutritional value.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOOD AND CULTURE

During World War II, homemakers began to join the U.S. workforce in large numbers and appreciated the timesaving advantages of frozen food. The appliance and food industries noted the acceptance by consumers of both freezing preservation of foods and the small freezer sections in household refrigerators. Early models of re- frigerators did not offer separate compressor units for the freezer section. As a result, these appliances provided only

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